‘With the Old Breed,’ an Intimate Look at Terror in World War II

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This content was originally published by DWIGHT GARNER on 20 April 2017 | 8:23 pm.
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“With the Old Breed” is, in other words, hardly unknown. But I am regularly surprised at the otherwise literate people of my acquaintance who not only have not read it but have not heard of it.

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It’s time to move this book to a higher shelf, to that of nonfiction that is literature. “With the Old Breed” is a deep pleasure. At this mad juncture in American history, it’s an honor to meet this decent, humble, loyal, courageous and truth-obsessed man.

Sledge’s book is a stinging reminder of the sacrifices others have made to allow us to live the life that we do. If you can make it through without welling up at half a dozen spots, you are a stronger person than I.

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Sonny Figueroa/The New York Times

“With the Old Breed” delivers up-close accounts of two very different battles. On Peleliu, men fought in the irradiating heat and on coral, which made finding shelter well-nigh impossible.

On Okinawa, Sledge and his fellow Marines fought in mud — mud that gave them trench foot and was often thick with maggots, rotting bodies, flies and feces. Each battle was an ordeal, a fight against a fanatical enemy that was dug in and determined to fight to the last man.

The battle for Peleliu is lesser-known than the battle for Okinawa, and some historians have argued it was unnecessary. (The Allies might have slipped around it, toward the Japanese mainland.) Yet as Paul Fussell notes in his introduction to one edition of Sledge’s book, “it was one of the worst slaughters of Marines in the Pacific.”

One of the themes of “With the Old Breed,” regardless of which battle Sledge is recounting, is the near impossibility of communicating the experience of combat to those who have not experienced it.

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“To the noncombatants and those on the periphery of action, the war meant only boredom or occasional excitement; but to those who entered the meat grinder itself, the war was a nether world of horror from which escape seemed less and less likely as casualties mounted and the fighting dragged on and on,” he writes.

He continues: “Time had no meaning; life had no meaning. The fierce struggle for survival in the abyss of Peleliu eroded the veneer of civilization and made savages of us all. We existed in an environment totally incomprehensible to men behind the lines.”

Sledge (his buddies called him Sledgehammer) takes us as close as we are likely to get. He describes countless scenes of terror, disgust, insanity and stupidity in prose that is lucid and unadorned.

When he does reach for figurative language, he is surpassingly vivid. About a dead enemy combatant in a tree, he comments: “His intestines were strung out among the branches like garland decorations on a Christmas tree.”

What puts “With the Old Breed” across is, oddly enough, Sledge’s sensitivity. He offers many small, artful portraits of men he admires. (And a few he despises.) He chronicles small kindnesses and profound acts of friendship.

There is not much time for him to take in the larger world. But when he can, he notes birds, and sunsets that remind him of those back home over Mobile Bay. When he discovers that Okinawans use a type of halter on their horses he’s never seen, he pauses to explain how it works.

He is a gentle man who learns to comprehend hatred. This book is unsparing in its depictions of barbarism. Marines callously ripped the gold teeth from dead Japanese soldiers, and took other kinds of ghoulish souvenirs. (He describes, by way of comparison, how Japanese soldiers would cut the genitals from the American dead and place them in the corpses’ mouths.)

About a friend who wished to take home the shriveled hand of a dead Japanese soldier, Sledge writes, “He was a 20th-century savage now, mild-mannered though he still was.” Sledge fights not to become a savage himself, but he does not always succeed.

“War is brutish, inglorious and a terrible waste,” Sledge writes. “Combat leaves an indelible mark on those who are forced to endure it. The only redeeming factors were my comrades’ incredible bravery and their devotion to each other.”

As an adventure story, “With the Old Breed” has a momentum that might put some modern readers in mind of Jon Krakauer’s “Into Thin Air.” As a portrait of camaraderie in the face of terrible danger, it resembles the third section of Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms.” It will make a lot of feeling slide around in you.

It’s difficult to write an ending to this essay without dabbling in Greatest Generation clichés. But it’s no stretch to suggest that this book will make you grateful that Sledge, and men like him, were here before us — and that Sledge left this unsparing chronicle.

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